The United States boasts the world's most efficient food production system. But the scientific research that begat it is lagging, and farmers will be less able to hold down food prices or meet growing world demand for American farm products in the years ahead unless the trend is reversed, a number of agricultural experts warn.
Federal funding for agricultural research has not kept pace with inflation in recent years, and increases at the state level and in the private sector have been insufficient to provide net real growth, farm analysts point out.
"We've become fat and happy. We take for granted our abundant food supply," said Dr. Jarvis E. Miller, president of Texas A&M University and a recognized agricultural authority, in a recent telephone interview.
Budget analyst William Gardner of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agrees that farm research funding in general has suffered from complacency. But he says the Carter administration's 1981 proposed budget is a substantial improvement.It calls for a 6 percent boost in USDA in-house research and a 7 percent jump in cooperative research with the states.The increases are greater than the previous year but still below the inflation rate projected for this year by the Carter administration.
It takes at least 10 years for new agricultural technology to graduate from the research stage to application, and meager research efforts through much of the 1970s already have set the stage for slower growth in US farm efficiency this decade, says Prof. Robert E. Evenson of Yale University.
Meanwhile, over the next 20 years, Professor Evenson sees growing world demand for American-produced food. The US already exports about one-third of its agricultural products.
"Research is the best way to expand US production at the lowest cost" with scientific and technological advances in plant breeding and farming practices, he says. "Research should begin growing in real [greater than inflation] terms" to prepare for higher demand through the 1990s, he argues.
Do consumers benefit from the use of tax dollars for agricultural research? Academic studies indicate that money spent on improving the efficiency and yield of the American farm sector pays for itself many times over in lower food prices , according to Professor Evenson. He says the average annual return on investment for public research in agriculture is 50 percent. In other words, investing $1 returns the equivalent of 50 cents annually, over many years.
"Agricultural research has been very productive in terms of yielding more than most other public investments," declares Dr. Evenson.
The Yale economist figures about one-fourth of the growth in US farm productivity can be attributed to research activities. From 1930 to mid-1965, American farming increased its productivity -- food output in relation to the amount of land, labor, and energy utilized -- by 3 to 3.5 percent annually. After slumping to a slower 1 percent yearly growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, productivity in the last five years has recovered somewhat to a 2 percent yearly rate of growth, Dr. Evenson estimates.
The growing problems of water shortages, soil erosion, and sharply higher energy costs require some new thrusts in agricultural research, Dr. Miller maintains.
Farm energy costs are rising rapidly, and federal studies have found that the agricultural sector could potentially reduce its energy consumption by 20 percent with effective conservation. Farmers also could become greater producers of energy. They could more crops to alcohol, for example.
New research could provide answers on how to use less fertilizer, which is energy-intensive, and how to utilize water more efficiently. Water consumption is of concern not only because supplies are diminishing in parts of the arid Southwest and West, but also because of the substantial amounts of energy it takes to operate irrigation systems.
Also, research leading to better tillage practices could cut down the use of tractors and heavy farm equipment and diesel fuel consumption.
"Energy is a pervasive concern to farmers. We need more work on new sources of energy and ways to reduce consumption," Dr. Miller asserts.
Generally, farmers need new information on how to improve resource conservation at the local level, according to Lyle Bauer, a Kansas wheat farmer and president of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD).
"When we look at the entire range of USDA programs designed to help private land-users solve soil- and water-conservation problems, we find that the federal government has steadily reduced its funding . . . over the last 10 years," he said in a recent speech at the NACD conference in Houston.
A recent USDA appraisal found that soil erosion alone could reduce farm productivity by 20 percent over the next 50 years if current farm practices continue.